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Review of  Cognitive Poetics

Reviewer: Michael G Getty
Book Title: Cognitive Poetics
Book Author: Peter Stockwell
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 15.2453

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Date: Thu, 2 Sep 2004 06:35:35 -0700 (PDT)
From: Michael Getty
Subject: Cognitive Poetics: An introduction

AUTHOR: Stockwell, Peter
TITLE: Cognitive Poetics
SUBTITLE: An introduction
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2002
ISBN: 0415258952

Michael Getty, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

'Cognitive Poetics' is an textbook introduction to the application of
cognitive science -- and cognitive linguistics in particular -- to the
study of literature and is designed for graduate or advanced
undergraduate audiences. The term 'Poetics' in the title is used in the
original Greek meaning, equally what we conventionally think of as
poetry as well as prose. The book builds its presentation in the course
of twelve chapters, moving from nuts-and-bolts concepts such as figures
versus grounds, prototypes versus examples, and deixis through more
complex notions such as discourse worlds, conceptual metaphors, and
'text worlds.' Each chapter is organized around an initial preview of
individual topics, followed by point-by-point exposition of these
topics, which is then rounded out by more detailed discussion, usually
based on examples of a variety of literary texts, from Middle English
allegory to the poetry of Ted Hughes to contemporary science fiction.
At the end of each chapter are discussion questions as well as lists of
further reading and references.

This is a delightful book, impressive both in its skilled presentation
as well as the ease with which Stockwell moves within and between the
two worlds he bridges by applying cognitive science and linguistics to
the study of literature.

The core of the approach outlined in this textbook is that literature
and linguistic structure have a common underlier: the basic parameters
of human cognition. A good example of this is the way human visual
perception is keyed toward contrast and motion: generally, we pay more
attention to discrete objects than we do to their backgrounds, and
objects in motion receive more attention than objects at rest. The
linguistic correlate of this is to be found in the ways many languages
employ syntactic movement or discourse markers to highlight prominent
phrases. The literary correlate is illustrated with a poem by Ted
Hughes depicting the use of an ancient rock in the construction of a
mill, Stockwell points to the way Hughes depicts both motion against a
background and the imparting of human emotions onto an inanimate
object, the latter device adding up to a 'reversal of expectations,'
thereby attracting readers' interest: ''Hill-stone was content / To be
cut, to be carted'' Later in the poem, millworkers are also depicted in
transition against the background provided by the stone, moving from
simile to a transformed identity: ''And inside the mills mankind / With
bodies that came and went / Stayed in position, fixed like stones /
Trembling in the song of the looms. / And they too became four-
cornered, stony.''

Given this brief example, we can see the allure of this approach,
namely its capacity to take much of the subjective, idiosyncratic
experience of reading literature and express it in terms of cognitive
categories that are universal, concrete, and inherently plausible.

In another chapter, Stockwell extends the semantic notion of deixis, or
'pointing,' as in the use of personal pronouns and locative adverbs to
refer to people and objects within a given space, introducing the idea
of 'deictic projection' as a way of understanding a reader's feeling of
being immersed in the world of a given text. Central to the art of
storytelling, by this account, is the creation of a deictic center that
is removed from the reader and the reader's here-and-now. Whether
through first-person or third-person narration, literature creates a
set of deictic relations between characters, objects, and places that
create a sense of being situated in the world of a given text. One of
the central artistic tools of literature, in turn, is the creation and
maintenance a dynamic deictic center. By 'shifting' the deictic center
-- e.g. through change of location or perspective, flashbacks, dreams,
stories within stories -- authors pique their readers' interest and
increase their sense of being 'swept away.'

The cognitive approach to literature extends the notion of deixis to
what Stockwell refers to as 'conceptual' and 'textual' deixis. Textual
deixis encompasses the use literary devices that draw attention to the
'textuality' of a given piece, e.g. chapter titles, distinctive
paragraph or line breaks, or an author's reference to the text itself
or to the production of the text. Compositional deixis, on the other
hand, refers to the use of literary devises that draw attention to
features of genre, literary tradition, or stylistic choices that
situate a text within a literary tradition (in all cases relying on a
reader's knowledge of these areas). For example, Stockwell refers to an
early 19th-century poem by Shelley: ''My name is Ozymandias, King of
Kings, / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.'' By consciously
using the archaic second-person-plural 'ye,' Shelley creates a literary
connection between his poem and earlier, especially Biblical,
traditions, one that would be unavailable to an uninformed reader. More
complicated still is the notion of 'relational' deixis, according to
which authors can also make deictic references within social space,
i.e. by communicating attitudes or expectations that characterize
relationships between characters or the author/narrator, e.g. ''King of
Kings'' in Shelley's poem pointing towards a social hierarchy.

All of these notions serve to formulate aspects of the literary
experience in concrete terms that most linguistics will find palatable
if not already familiar from areas such as semantics and discourse
studies. Indeed, the bulk of many chapters would not appear out of
place in an introductory textbook in either of these fields. Still,
this textbook approaches its subject matter from a perspective that is
rooted firmly against narrower structuralist approaches that have
characterized earlier work on the literary/linguistic borderland. Chief
among these would be the work of the Russian formalists of the first
half of the twentieth century (see e.g. Jefferson 1986), which
germinated at a time when contemporary approaches to pragmatics,
cognitive linguistics, and discourse studies were still in their
infancy. As Stockwell puts it (p. 91), ''The 'meaning' of a literary
work can be found in the minds of readers, configured there partly from
readerly processes and individual experiences, and only partly from the
cues offered by the elements of the text object. Even if 'meaning' or
interpretation is not the primary area of interest, the craft of the
text cannot simply be understood by formal decontextualized analysis

The meatiest and most difficult chapters of this book are dedicated to
the larger-scale, more complex notions such as ''discourse worlds and
mental spaces'' (Ch. 7), ''conceptual metaphor'' (Ch. 8), ''literature as
parable'' (Ch. 9), and ''text worlds'' (Ch. 10). I discuss the first two
of these as illustration.

In Ch. 7, Stockwell discusses the idea of adapting the 'possible
worlds' theory familiar from formal semantics to yield a notion of
'discourse worlds,' i.e. a set of possible worlds that readers create
using narrative and cognitive building blocks. Chief among these is the
mapping of readers' existing world knowledge into the mental space they
create in the course of reading a text. Someone who reads 'A Tale of
Two Cities,' for instance, creates a mental space corresponding to a
city called ''London,'' which they know to be geographically but not
temporally co-extensive with the present-day city of the same name. The
'swept away' feeling familiar to readers who enjoy reading period texts
derives from experiencing the ways in which this mental space and the
actual world are not co-extensive, e.g. by reading Dickens' accounts of
the sights and customs of Victorian London. Thus, discourse worlds
constructed by readers amount to complex, blended affairs, mixing
readers' own world knowledge and the propositional content of a text,
along with ancillary domains such as knowledge of literary or
sociocultural traditions.

The construction of discourse worlds can proceed both on a large scale
and on a much finer-grained scale as well. One example that illustrates
both the precision and intricacy of the cognitive approach involves
Winston Churchill's famous exchange with a certain Lady Astor. When
told by Lady Astor that if he were her husband, she would put poison in
his coffee, Churchill replied that if he were Astor's husband, he would
drink it. As Stockwell summarizes this exchange (p. 98), ''... there is
a cross-space mapping involving the partial mapping of counterparts in
two spaces. In this case, the real-space Churchill and Astor are
projected into a new hypothetical space. Certain properties of the base
space are carried over, and these commonalities form a common 'generic
space' containing Churchill and Astor, and also the real-space traits
that they are male and female ... and hate each other. However, out of
this new space an emergent structure develops that is neither the base
space nor the new projected space, nor is it limited to the few
elements of commonality in the generic space. Instead, we have a
fourth, blended space in which Churchill and Astor, though in one sense
the same as their counterparts in reality, are also married to each
other while simultaneously hating each other.''

In Ch. 8, Stockwell turns to the notion of 'conceptual metaphor,' a
concept that unifies both metaphor ('Love is a flower') and simile
('Love is like a flower') and focuses especially on metaphors that
underlie everyday language ('Good is up,' 'Down is bad,' 'Love is war,'
'Understanding is seeing'). The characteristic extension here is to
understand conceptual metaphor as the basic mechanism by which readers
construct an understanding of what a text 'is about,' e.g. by using
textual referents as the constitutents of metaphors they construct when
putting together an understanding of a text, e.g. '''Julius Caesar'' is a
story of betrayal' or '''Wuthering Heights'' is a love story' or
'''Wuthering Heights'' is a fable of property rights.' An idea developed
further in Ch. 9, in which Stockwell discusses larger-scale
understanding of literary texts, centering on the notion that readers
construct 'macrostructures' of textual readings by promoting or
demoting individual facts, propositions, or events. Describing this
process as one of 'parabolic projection' (from the original Greek
meaning of 'parabole,' as something that is constructed alongside
something else), Stockwell points to the centrality of conceptual
metaphors (or 'emblems' in a terminological refinement) in tying
characters, images, and events in texts to a reader's larger-scale
understanding, e.g. '''Robinson Crusoe'' is an emblem of isolation and
abandonment' or '''Romeo and Juliet'' is an emblem of tragic love.'

In the most general sense, this book is an indispensable, all-purpose
guide to any linguist who wants to understand literary reading in a way
that is largely consistent with our own idiom. By the same token, this
book would be essential reading for any literary scholar who wants to
understand how many linguists think and what interests us. Stockwell's
extensive and partially annotated references will be extremely useful
on both counts.

For instructors, this book will obviously be indispensable for anyone
with the responsibility of teaching a course on linguistic or semiotic
approaches to literature, or, say, a linguist asked to be on a
dissertation or examination committee in a literature program. The
ready-made discussion questions included in each chapters will be

For researchers, Stockwell's work will be most useful as a guide to the
admittedly small territory where linguistic and literary inquiry
overlap, e.g. for a semanticist or pragmatist wanting to use data from
literary texts or, say, to build a fuller understanding of general
semantic notions such as deixis.

Many readers (including the reviewer, alas) will be dizzied by the way
Stockwell shifts from small-scale, nuts-and-bolts aspects of literary
reading -- where linguists new to this area will feel most at home --
to large-scale, sweeping questions of interpretation, genre, and
literary tradition. Many notions, such as the blending of text worlds
and readers' world knowledge, can be very difficult to keep clear in
the mind as they are refined and built upon in other parts of the book,
though Stockwell's approach, along with very well-executed layout,
editing, and indexing, make this work easier.

Jefferson, Ann. 1986. ''Russian Formalism'', In 'Modern Literary Theory:
A Comparative Introduction' Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds.
Batsford Ltd. 1986). pp 24-45.
Michael Getty teaches linguistics at Washington University in St. Louis
and works on historical linguistics and generative approaches to poetic
meter. He is the author of 'The Metre of "Beowulf": A Constraint-Based
Approach' (de Gruyter 2002).

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